I strive to retain respect for philosophy and philosophers, really I do. Some of my best friends are philosophers. I’d hate to dismiss a whole area of intellectual endeavour as a sterile playground for clever wasters creating and demolishing pointless academic fashions. But you can probably tell I’m struggling hard right at this moment. It is all Nicholas Maxwell‘s fault. His entry into the heated debate on climate science rained blow after blow on my patience. I will resist, and will not damn all philosophy.
My second tactic is usually to ignore it (“No I can’t prove that chair exists. In fact it may not, because I can hear you talking out of your arse so clearly”). Life is too short. But in this case it got under my skin. This is partly because he picks on physics (hey! that’s me!) and partly because the climate debate Maxwell has stumbled ineptly into is real and important. And physicists have themselves stumbled fairly ineptly into this debate recently, as I discussed here.
He makes two criticisms of “science”. The first is on communication. Now there are clearly problems with the perception some of the public have of science, though many non-scientists have a more accurate view than some retired readers in the philosophy of science. The criticism Maxwell makes about too much “specialised gobbledygook” is entertaining, coming from a philosopher, but it is a fair criticism in some contexts. Science really can be complex and difficult (sorry Nicholas). Scientific jargon in my experience is not invented in desperate attempt to make trite cliches look deep. It is a short-hand to improve communication between experts which, however, quickly becomes an obstacle if used outside a sub-field.
More misleadingly, Maxwell accuses “scientists” (what, all of them?) of dishonestly claiming that science is a search for truth. He starts by misrepresenting physics. As far as I can tell his claim is that, in trying to find simple theories covering the maximum amount of data, we somehow assume that such theories exist and discard “more successful” disunified theories. I think he is saying, in his splendid philosophical way, that if you have 100 data points and draw a line through them freehand you can go through all the points. Which is true, but a worthless observation since playing joint-the-dots with data doesn’t tell you anything. You gain understanding when you find a line which can explain and predict where the dots should be. The theory we want may or may not exist, but trying for it still improves understanding.
Maxwell then leaps onward to damn all science according to his inaccurate characterisation of physics. His false impression of physics might be forgiven on the basis that perhaps he read one too many dodgy pop science books about “theories of everything”. But to stretch this to cover chemistry, biology and climate science is ridiculous. While there are underlying models in many areas of these sciences, they are hugely empirical. The complex systems they deal with are in many cases impossible to predict from first principles. The models used to predict and understand complex systems often rely on “rules of thumb” drawn from observation of the whole system, as well as basic physical laws.
Science is a form of systematised pragmatism; it finds out what works, and in the process we increase our understanding of the universe in which we live. I have no objection to philosophers watching, and trying to understand and improve this process. It might even work. But they really ought to have some understanding of what they are watching.
Science and scientists often fall short of the ideal, and the climate debate has exposed some shortcomings. Science is done by people, who need grants, who have professional rivalries, limited time, and passionately held beliefs. All these things can prevent us finding out what works. This is why the empiricism and pragmatism of science is crucial, and why when scientific results affect us all, and speak against powerful political and financial interests, the openness and rigour of the process becomes ever more vital. This is worth discussing, and I sincerely hope philosophers of science can do better than Maxwell in contributing to a debate of huge importance for the future of our species.
[Note added 22:30 16/3/2010 more discussion, mentioning this blog, here.]
[Note added 14:50 17/3/2010 a version of this post is now also on the Guardian Science blog.]